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The Persistence of Filipino Folklore

In the 21st century, pragmatic mindsets are the norm. For a person to believe in something, they must be able to see it. However, this is not the case in the Philippines. As a largely superstitious population, Filipinos’ lives are greatly influenced by supernatural forces. This includes spirits of the environment, witches, ghosts, monstrous and playful animals, and ancestral souls. When being reprimanded, Filipino children would be told, “Behave or the aswang will come and get you!” Families would refrain from going home directly after a wake, as they believed spirits would follow them home and haunt them. Various items and ornaments would be seen in the typical Filipino household to bring luck to the family. I myself have a couple of stories passed down from family elders that I still remember to this day. You may be asking yourself, why is it that these superstitions exist? Where did these beliefs come from? Well, sourcing the origin of each belief is an impossible undertaking, however, it all boils down to pre-colonial concepts of divinity.


Prior to colonization, Filipinos held a long-standing belief in spirits and deities that lived among them. Animism — the ascription of a spirit to objects, creatures, and plants — and Anitism — the adoration of ancestral spirits — were two prominent beliefs before the introduction of Christianity. When Spanish rule came about, these beliefs were deemed “heretical” and driven out of the populated societies, urging followers to hide themselves in rural areas. Despite Spain’s efforts to fully convert the country to Christianity, these pre-colonial beliefs did not die and were merely integrated into modern faith and transformed into the folktales and superstitions we practice today. 


To give you a taste of Filipino folklore, here are a couple of beliefs that are widely known in the country.


The Aswang 

This supernatural creature’s use is to scare children into discipline. More accurately, it is an umbrella term for shapeshifting monsters that suck blood and eat flesh. An aswang disguises itself as a human during the day, finding victims to prey on at night. A subspecies of aswang is called the manananggal, which originates from the root word tanggal, meaning “remove.” This name was earned due to its torso separating from its lower half at night. The Manananggal typically feasts on unborn fetuses and it is said that the only way to defeat it is to find its lower half.


Oro, Plata, Mata 

When building or choosing a house to live in, some Filipinos typically test the staircase by chanting “oro” — meaning “gold” — “plata” — meaning “silver” — and “mata” — meaning “death” after every step. If the staircase ends in either of the former two, it will bring them good fortune; if it ends with the latter, it will bring misfortune. In other words, staircases in houses should not end in a multiple of three. 


Tao po! 

When knocking on the door of someone’s house, Filipinos usually say “Tao po!” which roughly translates to saying “Person!” When you first listen to it, it is a fair assumption that Filipinos do this while knocking to call out to anyone inside. In reality, it is a shortened version of the pre-colonial phrase: “Tao po ako, hindi aswang!” (“I am a human and not an aswang!”) Thus, saying “Tao po!” is a reassurance to any listener inside that the knocker is a human as it was historically believed that dangerous forces could not speak human language.


Elves Stealing Your Stuff 

Have you ever lost something you just put down beside you? Or something that you put in a specific spot suddenly goes missing? You look everywhere for it only to find it in the same spot that you could have sworn you checked a million times. In the Philippines, we believe that this is due to duwendes or dwarves playing a joke on you. 


This is not to say that every single Filipino believes these superstitions. These folklore stories have been passed down from generation to generation, and so a lot of Filipinos practice them out of tradition and familiarity. I believe that knowledge of these superstitions and Filipino folklore is not only a fun conversation starter but also a testament to the resilience of Philippine traditions and beliefs against colonial aggressions towards their culture.

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